Globe and Mail: Canadian Sikhs: The shaming of the majority by the brutality of the few

Mainstream Sikhs condemn recent outbreaks of violence in Ontario, threats in B.C., but admonish those who suggest extremism is flourishing

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published on Friday, Apr. 23, 2010 10:37PM EDT
Last updated on Friday, Apr. 23, 2010 10:52PM EDT

The troubling signs in Canada’s Sikh community have been hard to miss.

In British Columbia, there were pictures of long-dead “martyrs” to the Punjabi separatist cause on parade, politicians warned away and threats made online. In the country’s other Sikh centre, Brampton, Ont., armed violence broke out at two temples, where peace is meant to prevail.

Amid the far-flung fury, Canada’s 300,000 Sikhs have had little choice but to watch, weigh in and move on with daily life, despite the distinctly uncomfortable feeling of being dragged backward into reductive stereotypes: crazed militant, keeper of the old-country grudge.

Setbacks and skirmishes have long typified the newcomer’s journey into Canada’s mainstream; Orangemen parades for years pitted Protestants against Catholics in Toronto, with bloody results, and many an immigrant group since has taken homeland grievances to the street.

Knowing this hasn’t made life any easier for the peaceful majority among Canadian Sikhs, who continue to be shamed by the brutality of the few.

“There’s no reason why this should be happening now; there’s nothing going on in the Sikh community that would support violence or anything like that,” said Balpreet Singh Boparai, a 29-year-old lawyer from Toronto.

Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail. Jas Gill, communications manager of the Sher-e-Punjab radio station in Richmond, B.C., says she was 'offended' by allegations made by Liberal MP and former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh that Sikh militancy is on the rise in Canada.
Born and raised in rural Ontario, Mr. Boparai is as faithful to his Canadian values as he is to his religion. And yet, in his royal blue turban, long beard and traditional dress, he winds up wearing whatever happens in the remote corners of his community.

“My image is held hostage to the crazy acts of some random people,” he said, referring specifically to the Brampton incidents. “These people who are doing this should be prosecuted … and even within the Sikh community, we’re saying these people should be sidelined.”

Unfortunately, it’s Canada’s mainstream Sikhs who feel sidelined by unsavoury incidents in their community in recent weeks. While repulsed by the violence in Brampton and threats against former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh in Surrey, they say these events have been unfairly conflated – by Mr. Dosanjh himself – to substantiate claims of a resurgent militancy and support in Canada for the Khalistan separatist movement in India.

While many may sympathize with the ideal of Sikh sovereignty, or call for Indian redress of past wrongs in the Punjab region, it is a reckless leap to suggest they support armed struggle or reject Canadian values, said Ramandeep Grewal, a prominent voice among Toronto Sikhs. She said her community’s swift denunciations of the recent incidents suggest the opposite: that it is employing Canadian values, absorbed over decades, to marginalize its extreme elements.

“The response shows that the community is a lot more mature than it was 20 years ago,” said Ms. Grewal, a corporate lawyer on Bay Street. “It’s not going to stand by and allow a few people to taint the community by their actions.”

Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail. Moninder Singh, outside the Gurdwara Sahib Dasmesh Darbar temple in Surrey, B.C. Mr. Singh says he wishes 'mainstream' Canadians understood Sikhs better.

Oddly, Ms. Grewal and other moderate Sikhs found themselves counting Mr. Dosanjh among that group this week, as he repeatedly suggested Sikh militancy has flourished as “politically correct” Canadians turned a blind eye out of misplaced multicultural sensitivity.

Mr. Dosanjh’s comments won partial backing from Jason Kenney, the Conservative Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.

“I think he has hit on an important issue, but I don’t think it’s easy to quantify the degree to which there may be extremism,” Mr. Kenney told The Globe.

“There is no doubt that there are violent incidents, and endorsements of violent tactics in a number of different communities, and these things are totally unacceptable,” he said, adding that those responsible “should be completely marginalized from the mainstream of their communities.”

Sikhs say they have been doing just that since the 1980s, and that Mr. Dosanjh’s remarks will only revive the fading embers of extremism, set back Sikhs’ mainstream progress and fuel xenophobic intolerance.

Militancy “is definitely dying a natural death and most people would be more than happy to see that happen,” Ms. Grewal said, “but some people just don’t seem to be willing to let it go.”

Mr. Dosanjh’s experience with extremism has been as personal as it gets. Early in 1985, he was badly beaten in Vancouver for speaking out against the Khalistan movement. Months earlier, the Indian government had attacked militants at Sikhism’s holiest site, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, killing several hundred people and enraging Sikhs around the world. A few months after Mr. Dosanjh was beaten, a bomb exploded aboard an Air India flight from Toronto, killing 329 people, in apparent retaliation.

T. Sher Singh, a Sikh and a long-time media commentator based in Guelph, Ont., describes himself as a friend and political supporter of Mr. Dosanjh and, like him, a staunch critic of extremism. At the same time, Mr. Singh said “the movement has long died,” and suggested Mr. Dosanjh has let his personal trauma cloud that reality, to the detriment of the community.

“I think if he could really get objective to it, he would stand back, he would just shut up on this issue and not say a word for two years or five years,” Mr. Singh said. “But he’s not able to. It’s very personal between him and the clowns in the community.”

Mr. Singh also took issue with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent expressions of concern to Prime Minister Stephen Harper about growing support in Canada for militancy in Punjab, which predated most of the recent events.

J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail. From left, Bhagwaat Hundal, Harjeet Singh Dhadda, Pritpal Singh Chatha. They were among the four men beaten recently by Sikh extremists during a temple meeting in Brampton.
The violence in Brampton – the April 2 stabbing of a controversial speaker at a gurdwara (temple), and last Sunday’s attack at another worship site where a hatchet, tire iron and machete were used to inflict minor wounds on four men – was abhorrent and should be dealt with firmly by the courts, Mr. Singh said. The glorification of so-called martyrs, whether in the Surrey parade or in temples across the country, is also “inappropriate.” However, “what happened in Brampton and what happened in Surrey is not terrorism. It is stupidity and it is criminal … but it’s got nothing to do with terrorism.”

Mr. Singh said India has a strategic interest in keeping the Sikh diaspora “off-balance” and suggested “agents provocateurs” have long been causing trouble in Sikh communities in Vancouver and Toronto. “Violent incidents like these have happened all the time around important dates in the Sikh calendar – April 13 or June 5 or Oct. 31 – for the past 26 years,” he said. “Why does it happen all the time in Canada?”

Manjit Singh, a Montreal-based Sikh scholar, expanded on this view, and said “trouble makers in Canada get cues from political leaders in Punjab because of being first-generation immigrants.” He added that other countries with a history of fomenting Sikh militancy in Punjab are reportedly funding Canadian groups “to further their agenda” of destabilizing India, an ascendant rival on the world stage.

Complex as Canada’s Sikh situation may be, “it is not an unusual or unique one, in that all different new communities have gone through this sort of a thing before,” T. Sher Singh said. “I remember when I first came here, 30, 40 years ago, people from East European countries – Hungarians, Poles and Czechs – were being haunted by this sort of thing, primarily because there were mother-country issues coming over.”

He also pointed out the long history of clashes at Toronto’s annual Orangemen’s Day Parade, a Protestant import from Ireland once known for displays of anti-Catholic sentiment that has long since mellowed into near obscurity.

“It took us 50 years in Canada to quiet them and give each other the freedom of having their own parades,” he said. “We’ve dealt with all of that, and we need to deal with this the way we’ve dealt with the Quebec situation and say, ‘Do whatever you want to do, but don’t cross the line into breaking the law.’ ”

Trying to ban the display of pictures of martyrs and symbols “is going to inflame them even more,” T. Sher Singh said. “It gives them power; it makes them feel they’re being wronged.”

One symbol, the saffron flag, continues to soar over the Sri Guru Nanak Sikh Center in Brampton, scene of last Sunday’s melee. The flag traditionally signals that everyone is welcome, but that sentiment no longer applies to the handful of men who used to call the shots inside the sprawling temple, the ones who picked up weapons in a bid to regain control of a congregation whose values – moderation, liberal-mindedness, transparency – had subsumed their own.

“I don’t think they have grown genetically from 300 years ago,” Rajinder Singh Sandhu, the soft-spoken secretary of the temple, said of the attackers, who will be shunned from the community. “We are all part of society, and we need to behave as part of society.”


'We’re not glorifying violence,’ second-generation Sikhs say

Moninder Singh, 29, has a busy life juggling a family and career as an occupational therapist in Surrey, B.C. Like many second-generation Sikhs, he’s educated and articulate and wishes “mainstream” Canadians understood Sikhs better.

He also maintains that Sikh extremists were not responsible for the 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329 people, and describes the Sikh men executed for assassinating Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as martyrs.

Their pictures adorn the entrance of the controversial Sikh temple he speaks for. “We’re not glorifying violence,” Mr. Singh said during an interview. “We’re just showing that at certain times in history people have had to do things that may not be understood for another 50 years.”

It is these kinds of sentiments that rile Liberal MP and former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, who took aim at young, second-generation Sikhs such as Mr. Singh last week, alleging that militancy is alive and on the rise in Canada.

Punjabi-speaking radio stations were ablaze with angry callers. “I was offended,” said Jas Gill, 27, communications manager of the Sher-e-Punjab radio station in Richmond. “I don’t see [extremism] and I would like to see his evidence.”

With reports from Globe reporter Jane Armstrong and Gurmukh Singh, Special to The Globe and Mail

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